Charles Ludlam’s most famous campy comedy, “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” gets a first-rate revival at Court Theatre in Hyde Park under the direction of Sean Graney.
The play exhibits two of this straitened season’s theatrical themes, the “comfort-theater,” sure-thing revival, and the limited cast. But you don’t get more for your money than with this farce, where two actors play eight roles in a breathless series of quick changes that leave the audience gasping.
A pastiche on the gothic melodrama, Ludlam’s hilarious script brings in vampires, werewolves, mummies and more, with a dizzying sequence of allusions to horror films, Shakespeare and literary classics. Erik Hellman and Chris Sullivan do it all delightfully — The saucy maid, the leering manservant, the haunted lord, his timid new wife, the murderous monster, the Egyptian guide, the ancient goddess and the mysterious Irma Vep — scarcely showing the strain of some 35 costume changes in the course of two hours.
But it’s not only the fast changeovers that create the fun. The two do some genuinely fine acting, exhibiting comic turns that go just far enough and too far. Hellman’s sassy Jane Twisden and Sullivan’s wolfish Nicodemus Underwood — the maid and manservant — particularly please.
The only flaw comes in at the end, where a directorial move breaks the fourth wall — not the one between the actors and the audience, but the one between the audience and the backstage crew. Apparently a nod to Ludlam’s historical practice of allowing VIPs behind the scenes to watch the changes in progress at his Ridiculous Theatrical Company, this anticlimactic finish nevertheless reduces the mystery of the show — like having a magic act explained.
Still, it’s a minor hitch in a rollicking good time. Go and laugh.